Nature will always be the greatest reprieve. That was my takeaway after spending a few days exploring California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. I’ve heard this national park in California described a few ways, and I’m returning to concur: it is one of the most underrated national parks I’ve explored. Lassen Volcanic National Park delighted with surprises — from geothermal activity, hikes, to wildlife, there was everything you could hope for and more.
When it comes to things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park, this travel guide will give you some ideas on how to spend your time. The big takeaway? A slow-paced weekend here will give you an idealized way to experience the park. It’s not one to rush through, not one that you can go from one spot to the next. Many of the gems indeed require some time and the reward far exceeds the effort.
The sweet takeaway from the whole trip here was that there are still gems in California not entirely overran by tourism. There is plenty of open space to explore here, hikes that will take you to backcountry lakes and creeks. And with limited services right now, it means that those who are there to explore, are in it to be immersed in nature.
So it’s with great joy that I share this travel guide to California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. Mostly because as a local to Northern California, I’m still discovering gems like this. And importantly, it’s another opportunity to be socially distanced and connected to nature.
A Travel Guide to California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park
Getting to Lassen Volcanic National Park
This is the ultimate road trip destination when it comes to visiting national parks. You’ll certainly need a car to get to Volcanic National Park. It’s around 3.5 hours from Sacramento by car. Its location is remote when it comes to nearby destinations. The closest major cities would be Redding or Red Bluff.
What to Know Before Visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park
Some timing and planning are necessary for visiting Volcanic National, mostly due to the limited services. At the time of this being written (August 1, 2020), the park has limited what is open. I’d highly recommend visiting the National Park Service website before making your plans to see what is open as it may change.
The big struggle for us was getting gas as we were in a Westfalia that required a frequent fillup and only took 91. You will want to fill up before arriving (Chico/Redding) as there is one gas station in the park at Manzanita Campground serving only 87. The nearest gas stations are located in Chester or Old Station, each around 30 minutes out of the park.
You will most likely need to bring all meals if staying in the park or visiting mid-week. There are some services outside of the park, just have to be okay with making the drive. At Manzanita Lake, the camper store is open which does have food.
Best Time of Year to Visit Lassen
If you search images of the park, you’ll notice the area does get quite a bit of snow. Road closures do occur, so I’d personally recommend this as a late spring to early fall destination if you plan to hike. Some hiking trails do close to snow hazards and this is all updated on the NPS website.
Amount of Time in Lassen
We did two nights and didn’t quite get to it all. I think three nights would be better to have another sunset or truly spend a full three days/two nights.
Health & Safety
Please bring a mask when hiking so you could pop it on when passing other people and maintain 6 feet from others. I’d recommend reading our how to travel responsibly in California guide. One of the few things to consider when visiting is wildlife, especially if you plan to go backpacking. It is bear country, so be bear aware when hiking. And as always
Where to Stay in Lassen Volcanic National Park
There are a few options for your stay in the area. We opted to rent a Westfalia using Outdoorsy. It was such a wonderful experience and a great way to explore the park. The benefit of having the Westfalia was that we had a kitchen/fridge with us at all times. We parked at a campsite south of the park and will share details below:
Camp at Mill Creek Resort Campground
This is where we parked our Westfalia at each night. This private campground nestled right next to a creek is truly a gem and one of the most stunning locations I’ve seen. Each of the campsites has ample room with a total of 17 spots ($20 a night/book in advance). They have spots to park RV’s as well and offer private cabins for rent as an alternative. The location is around 30 minutes into the park. There are community showers/flush toilets as well. For those looking for a camping experience that is not stacked up with people, this is it. I’d recommend spots 11-17 if you can.
If you’re looking for more RVs or trailers to rent, I’d recommend looking at Outdoorsy for options in your area.
Manzanita Lake Campground
With Mill Creek Resort being my preference, I’d still recommend there first if possible. Since many have sent messages that they’re full for your dates, I’d then recommend Manzanita Lake Campground as an alternate.
Highlands Ranch Resort
We drove by this property in Mill Creek a few times and it looked like a great option for those looking for a hotel experience. It’s not too far from the park and offers an option if you’re not camping or looking for a cabin.
Things to Do in Lassen Volcanic National Park
Discover Bumpass Hell
One of the most active geothermal areas in all of the parks is Bumpass Hell. From mud pots to turquoise bubbling waters, this trail takes you out to a hot spring area. Boardwalks are laid out so you can safely visit the geothermal areas of this part of the park. Please stay on the trail here. Another great area to see geothermal activity in the park is Sulphur Works (park in the lot and walk along the side of the road to see).
Soak in the views at Lake Helen
Certainly a stunning lake in the area, Lake Helen’s incredible colors are one of a kind. In the background, you’ll see Lassen Peak and makes for a wonderful pitstop for a lunch break while exploring the park.
Stroll and Sunset at Manzanita Lake
My favorite lake in the park was Manzanita as it has a wonderful spot for recreation and enjoying the outdoors. You can fish on the lake here, rent kayaks and more. You’ll find a trail that loops around the lake and gives some incredible views for the north part of the park.
Hike Cinder Cone
If you do one large hike outside of Lassen Peak, let it be Cinder Cone. You will need to drive out of the park and then down a dirt road which brings you to the trailhead which starts at Butte Lake Campground. As you climb up this volcano, you’ll find the trail is very challenging due to the gravel nature of the trail. But once you get to the top of it, the views are incredible. One of the unique things you can see here is the Painted Dunes (recommend 70-200mm lens to capture). This would be an epic spot for sunrise or sunset as well.
Other Hiking Trails
One of the most famous trails is to make the climb up Lassen Peak (one of the largest plug dome volcanos in the world). You’ll need some time and effort to do this, I recommend referring to All Trails for a guide. The other hike we did which we loved was King’s Creek (we did a short loop). It follows along the creek and then steep stairs border a waterfall.
Stargazing in the Park
If you’re into stargazing, the lack of light pollution here makes for one of the best spots to do so. There are a few locations in the park that works well, I’d recommend at Manzanita Lake or Lake Helen where there is ample space to look up at the sky. I know a lot of people travel here just for this alone as the skies are often crystal clear here.
What to Pack for a Trip to Lassen
You’re going to want many layers for your trip here as the weather is always cooler than the rest of California due to the elevation. Hiking gear is also recommended.
I’d also recommend bringing snacks, water, and other provisions necessary for your trip.